The G5 might be the most ambitious flagship I’ve ever used, but you probably wouldn’t guess that from its looks. “Boring” is the single most common adjective I’ve heard used in conversation to describe the phone’s design. And that’s understandable; physically, there’s just not a lot going on here. For what it’s worth, I personally find the G5 kind of charming. Its all-metal body is softened by rounded corners and a curved glass forehead that also houses the earpiece and an 8-megapixel selfie camera. The device is pleasant to hold too, though I’d still give the comfort nod to the Galaxy S7, which is actually a hair thicker than the G5. Throw in a Snapdragon 820 chip, 4GB of RAM, a 5.3-inch IPS LCD display running at Quad HD resolution and a USB Type-C port on the bottom and you’ve got yourself a solidly modern (if forgettable) phone.
Peer a little closer, though, and you’ll start to see key signs that not all is normal here. LG broke with tradition by moving the phone’s volume keys to the left side, instead of fitting them above and below the rear power button/fingerprint sensor. (That sensor, by the way, seems much more finicky than the one on the Nexus 5X.) Meanwhile, the signature lump on the back plays host to not one but two cameras: one for wide-angle shots and another for your more traditionally framed photos. Additionally, there’s one more button on the G5’s left edge; pressing it releases a latch and frees the phone’s battery/chin-piece combination. Congrats! You’ve found what makes the G5 such a marvelously crazy phone.
You’ll be doing this a lot if you want to swap between your G5’s additional “Friend” modules, and the process can involve a certain amount of terror. See, swapping Friends sometimes involves removing the G5’s 2,800mAh battery from one module and snapping it onto another. The best way I’ve found is the “removing a Band-Aid” approach — a quick, decisive jerk while holding the battery in your left hand and the module in your right. Don’t think about it — just do it. It took me a good 15 minutes to figure out the process, because I was so worried I’d break something, but so far I’ve managed to avoid destroying either of our review loaners. Still, I’m curious about how long these things will last before some poor piece of plastic snaps. Beyond that, I’m frustrated that the G5 doesn’t have some tiny auxiliary battery inside so that it doesn’t have to restart every time you want to start using the camera grip or the audio DAC.
The G5’s modular ambitions are lofty, but there are some obvious sacrifices that had to be made to get them all working. There’s a pretty noticeable gap between the bottom of the screen and the top of the phone’s chin, which doesn’t exactly do much for the G5’s fit and finish. LG obviously couldn’t make this thing modular and waterproof, so be sure to keep the G5 away from your toilet. At least we still have some of LG’s long-held niceties, like a microSD card reader (you can add on up to 2TB of additional storage) and a surprisingly handy IR blaster.
Display and sound
Last year, the G4 gave us our first look at LG’s so-called Quantum displays — screens that sought to portray a wider, more accurate color gamut. LG didn’t rewrite the book with the 5.3-inch IPS screen on this year’s G5; it just improved a few things here and there. First off, the smaller Quad HD display makes the device a little easier to hold, and it’s a hair sharper as well: It has a pixel density of 554 ppi, while the G4’s 5.5-inch screen had 538 pixels per inch. The G5’s display is a little brighter too, which will certainly come in handy as we head into summer. Images look the same here as they do on the G4, but, accuracy claims aside, colors still lack the sort of punchy, visceral appeal you’ll get on rival devices. Hues here feel subdued and understated, but hey, that might be your thing — and for my part, I got used to them quickly enough.
The G5’s screen also has an always-on mode, inspired by the secondary display on last year’s V10. It’s impossible to dodge comparisons between the G5 and the approach Samsung took with the Galaxy S7 family, but it ultimately comes down to personal preference. Quick recap: The G5 uses an LCD screen, and you can’t light up just part of it like you can with a Galaxy’s AMOLED display. That means the G5’s entire screen is lit up (if only a little), which can make it somewhat distracting in the dark. LG’s approach is valuable, since it displays notifications from all your apps, not just a select few. Most important, it manages to tax the battery less than the GS7’s always-on screen did.
Meanwhile, the G5 has a single speaker wedged into its bottom, and it’s one of the better ones through which I’ve listened to My Brother, My Brother and Me lately. It’s surprisingly loud and does a fine job keeping the soundstage clear. You’ll need some headphones (and maybe one of LG’s HiFi audio modules) for long-term listening, but the G5 is a more capable audio machine out of the box than you might expect.
As far as LG is concerned, the G5 isn’t just a flagship — it’s a foundation for a new kind of phone experience. With a little help from its Friends (in this case, an eclectic mix of accessories), the G5 could offer a better camera experience, or the sort of sound quality audiophiles have been dreaming of. By virtue of its modular design, the G5 could become the right smartphone for any situation! Other companies have talked up the promise of modular smartphones for years now, but LG is the first major player to bring that taste of flexibility to the masses. That’s enough to earn some kudos from me, but here’s the rub: None of the Friends I’ve used so far make the G5 significantly better.
Take the $70 LG Cam Plus, a chunky grip that gives the G5 physical camera controls and an extra 1,200mAh worth of juice. Having a secondary battery and a two-stage shutter button is nice, but it’s otherwise forgettable as a camera accessory. And in addition to being awkwardly positioned on the grip’s corner, the zoom dial doesn’t have any tension or friction — which makes it lousy for precision zooming. It’s far from terrible, but really, its biggest draw is the extra battery inside.
Then there’s the Hi-Fi Plus module, which LG developed in tandem with Bang & Olufsen (and which doesn’t seem to be coming to the US). Audiophiles will appreciate the fact that it upscales just about any audio — be it from Spotify, YouTube, whatever — to 32-bit quality. I’m currently on the hunt for the perfect earbuds, but none of the in-ears I tried with the Hi-Fi Plus sounded dramatically better than before. Best-case scenario, a track I had listened to hundreds of times in the past felt a little deeper. Other times, songs just sounded different. Not better, not worse, just different. In fairness, music buffs with more elaborate rigs will probably get more use out of this DAC than I did, especially since you can hook it up to other audio devices with an included cable.
As it turns out, that cable would be crucial to my testing. See, the FCC hadn’t certified this particular module, so it absolutely refused to work with my T-Mobile G5. I had to use the cable as a pass-through to even get the phone to boot normally, so please: Make sure you have all the facts before you buy a Hi-Fi Plus from overseas for your personal G5. This hiccup also raises some curious questions about the future of the Friends program: Will we see other modules launch only in certain markets? And will they refuse to play nice with the US G5 too?
Obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the G5’s Friends. Two add-ons I’ve encountered in the past — the curious VR headset and Rolling Bot — will be ready for prime time soon. Still others, like LG’s new Tone Bluetooth earbuds, don’t excite much, since they work fine with any modern smartphone. Still, an ever-updating selection of Friends could mean the G5 is that rare device that actually gets better with time. What’s more, LG has mentioned that it’s opening its foundation to third-party modules, and Friends released for the G5 are expected to work with next year’s flagship too. The only way to ensure LG’s Friends have a future is to pay for existing ones, and no one could blame you for being hesitant right now.